Bigger and/or better?
I have to admire writer/director/editor Gareth Evans' ambition to up the narrative scale and ambition of The Raid 2. Its predecessor was a lean, efficient storytelling machine, spending just enough time developing the characters and conflicts to ensure it wasn't simply a meaningless jumble of visceral and brutal combat. It was hardly storytelling gold, but it did the job. So yes: aiming for something more epic is a worthy goal - escalating the claustrophobic events of film one to a citywide scale and encompassing a complex, spiraling gang war. In a genre like action films, where story is so often treated as a mere inconvenience, lord knows aiming for something more in-depth is something to be praised. Regrettably, Evans sabotages that goodwill with haphazard execution.
The Raid 2 no doubt presents the audience with an epic gangster story, but it plays out like a poor homage to some of Takeshi Kitano's least interesting yakuza efforts. It's both simplistic and overly complicated. There's little flow, and too much time is spent on scenes that tell us too little in generally uninteresting ways. Themes threaten to emerge, but those looking for a scathing portrait of corruption in Indonesian society are best looking elsewhere (The Act of Killing, perhaps). It favours plot over a deeper story, ever pushing events forward with a minimal concern for pacing or characterisation. The latter is a significant problem. Even The Raid's fiercest defenders would likely concede it offers little in the way of character depth, but it had strongly defined pro and antagonists, where the relationships between the various combatants existed under clearly defined parameters. There's little of that here. Lead character Rama (Iwo Uwais) returns, but his character tapes babysteps here - there's hints throughout of the grueling emotional and physical torture the film's events are putting him through, but they are rarely explored in an interesting manner.
Worse are the colourful bunch that he encounters as a newly appointed undercover agent. Arifin Putra's Ucok is a weak villain, acting more out of the script's arbitrary demands than any sort of internal consistency - it's not particularly believable that he can pull off the mutiny he eventually does. The mysterious Bejo (Alex Abbad) is vitally important to the plot, but never feels as menacing or mysterious as he should. As shit finally hits the fan towards the end, Oka Antara's Eka is suddenly spotlighted as Rama's key ally - a development that would have been more successful if he had have done anything more than just standing around up until that point, and wasn't casually dispatched as soon as his true motivations are revealed. A pair of baseball bat and hammer wielding assassins are easily the film's most memorable minions (they're instrumental to the success of two of the film's most successful setpieces), and Evans hints at an intriguing history and comradery between the two. However, they have nothing but a handful of scenes that fail to develop that proposed depth in a satisfying way - not even an establishing action scene to set them up as a partnership to be reckoned with. Then there's Yayan Ruhian, returning as a completely different character after his memorable turn in the first film as the psychotic Mad Dog. Here he plays scruffy hired sword Koso, one of the few characters with well defined motivations and backstory. Yet, despite playing a role in the he still feels shoehorned in, and again bows out as quickly as he entered.
Koso's final scene highlights another problem facing the film - its settings can feel awfully contrived. His death takes place in a snowy alleyway - an unfortunate decision, since the sudden appearance of snow seems completely and distractingly random despite the pleasing visual contrast between white and blood red. Obviously picking locations because they look awesome is not the worst way to go in a film such as this, but it leaves The Raid 2 with a confused and inconsistent visual signature. Much of the film looks disappointingly bland and murky, and the rare scenes set in bright rooms or sunny locations slot in awkwardly as a result. There's some fantastic locations chosen throughout - a neon nightclub, a cavernous dining room - but many of them feel excessively artificial and barely connected in this exaggerate Jakarta. The consistency of The Raid 1's gritty apartment block is sorely missed, despite a huge increase in the variety of locations. It's only later on - and I'll get to that 'later on' shortly - that Evans finds his feet visually.
What of the action, which let's be honest is what we're all here there for. For the first half of the film and the scattered setpieces that are contained within, it's actually incredibly frustrating in terms of spectacle. Make no mistake: the stuntwork is exceptional, the fights truly intense and the impacts among the most brutal in all of action cinema: it's exactly what you'd expect from a sequel to The Raid, perhaps even more visceral than its exception predecessor. Sadly, Evans' aesthetic choices threaten to sabotage the assault of balletic carnage. Over-zealous editing gives the audience little room to appreciate the flow and rhythm of the performers' actions. Worse still is the abundant utilisation of shaky cam. Employed far more liberally than in The Raid, it damn near ruins several of the early fights. Again, it's very clear with Evans' is trying to do here - achieve remarkable spectacle on a low budget, and also put the viewer right into the middle of the brutal action (a cynic might also suggest partially to placate the censors in what is, by and large, among the most ultraviolent action films ever made). He has overcompensated.
In fact, the jittery camera is even worse than other examples of the dark art of shaky cam, as there seems to be a post-production artificiality to it. It's as if the cameraman was trying to frame the action while shaking uncontrollably, and the editor still decided to layer a computerised earthquake filter on top of the footage. In a film where a key pleasure is bearing witness to immaculate choreography and astonishing physical feats, the restless camera borders on ruinous. In one memorable early sequence - a mudsoaked prisonyard brawl that echoes Seven Samurai's rainy climax (there's actually several nods to classic films throughout, and to directors such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick) - the hyperactive camera and editing makes it even harder to follow the action as the participants' faces become caked in thick layers of mud. It's a great scene rendered significantly lesser by its presentation. All the more heartbreaking is the fact that Evans shows himself more than capable of long, lingering shots. Even the opening shot is a magnificently framed one that lasts for the guts of an entire minute before cutting - that sort of camera stability would have been very welcome in many of the film's action sequences. Budget may have denied Evans such a luxury, but the compromise is an unfortunate one.
I can actually pinpoint the moment when the film belatedly finds its feet. It's a trio of action sequences, elegantly crossedited with each other, including an inspired subway fight in which Julie Estelles' 'Hammer Girl' dispatches thugs with her weapon of choice. There's also the most bone crunching use of a baseball I've ever seen. Not only does this sequence up the scale, but it also sees Evans achieve more success in terms of his direction. He allows more light to highlight the action, which is much needed. The camera is still in nearly constant motion, but pared back that vital little bit to really highlight the more spectacular moments. The settings feel better utilised, with better use of space and props. Even the pacing of the fights feels stronger, with some epic build ups before the punches start being thrown.
That sequence is swiftly followed by an extraordinary car chase featuring some truly visceral vehicular combat - it's also an opportunity to allow Iwais dispatch four fellow passengers in a car, with the camera perfectly capturing a giddily close quarters four-on-one fight scene. And the car chase segues very quickly into the film's extended climax, which could only be described as a gauntlet of bloodshed. Rama faces four rooms of fighting, one after the other. It's as grueling to watch as it is for the character to experience - when he finally emerges battered and bruised but just about alive, it's a genuine relief after a good twenty minutes of a relentless fight for survival. One of the most satisfying moments is when Rama and his fiercest opponents (Cecep Arif Rahman) just stop in the middle of a hugely destructive brawl in a kitchen. Both injured and exhausted, they take a few moments to simply stare determinedly into each other eyes before continuing wailing on each other in their fight to the death. It's that kind of silent, intense moment that's sorely lacking in the film's exposition-heavy first half.
It also helps that, by this point, The Raid 2 has more of a purpose and determination in storytelling terms. With most of the characters long since murdered, Evans is free to focus on Rama and the handful of enemies standing between him and possible freedom (an excellent ending teases that outcome might not be quite so easy). There's still some hangovers - it's difficult to really care about any of these people since they've been so poorly established early on, and there's a few lingering subplots clearly getting screentime lest The Raid 3 ends up getting greenlit. However, in stepping back from being a largely uninteresting, convoluted gangster epic to zone in on its protagonist and his simple, clear goals of a) surviving and b) beating the shit out of anything that gets in his way, The Raid 2 only in its final act matches the no-nonsense storytelling that made its predecessor such a ruthlessly efficient beast. When The Raid 2 is great, it's pretty magnificent. Sadly, it's something of a chore before we get to that not inconsiderable payoff.